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Catholic concern for social, political and cultural issues has roots in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and in the Letter of James. Learn about Jesus’ concerns over the social problems of his day and his commitment to those oppressed and marginalized by society.

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Jesus on Justice: A Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness

by Virginia Smith

The 1960s were a decade of tumult and turmoil in the political and cultural arenas for the United States and a decade of commotion and confusion in the religious arena for the Catholic Church. While the Church dealt with changes directed by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the nation coped with vocal contingents demanding civil rights, voting rights, women's rights, plus a just and speedy resolution to the conflict raging in Vietnam.

At first glance, it would seem unlikely that these concerns of church and state would overlap. That they very quickly became closely intertwined can be attributed chiefly to the appearance of large numbers of clergy and professed religious among those marching to promote that multiplicity of civil causes. The prominence of clerical collars and religious habits still being worn at the time startled most Catholics and utterly shocked some. What were they doing there? Did they have any business there? Shouldn't they be back in their rectories, convents and monasteries doing "religious" things? What in the world would Jesus think? That's precisely the question this issue of Scripture from Scratch intends to examine.


The Righteous Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel

These causes and others like them came to be labeled social justice issues. At their heart lay the increasingly strident insistence that there exist certain indispensable essentials that are the entitlement of every person on earth simply by virtue of their shared humanity. The list of basic human rights includes, but is not limited to, food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education and adequate employment. Certainly they should head every civil government's agenda, but where, if anywhere, does the Church find a place? The foundation for Christianity's involvement in social issues was poured by many of the prophets of the First Testament. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Amos and others called loudly and often for the fair treatment of the disadvantaged. Jesus was unquestionably familiar with their words. In fact, as we shall see a bit further along, he used Isaiah's social justice platform in the address that launched his own public ministry.

While justice is a theme that weaves its way through most Second Testament books, it is perhaps Matthew who gives it the greatest emphasis with Luke following closely. Righteousness is one of the primary themes in Matthew.

Among the Beatitudes, which form the heart of Jesus' powerful Sermon on the Mount, we find, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled" (Mt 5:6). That positions this virtue squarely in the center of Jesus' enduring message, so it might be wise to brush up on its definition.

What exactly is meant by righteousness? In essence, it denotes actions that are morally right or justifiable in conjunction with divine law. A hunger and thirst for righteousness arises, then, from an outrage and indignation over injustice and immorality.

Jesus' concern over the social sins of his day is indisputable. In a short parable, he compared the kingdom of heaven to "a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind. When it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age.  The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." He then asked his audience, "'Have you understood all this?' They answered, 'Yes'" (Mt 13:47b-51). But did they really understand? Do we? Apparently not as well as we might for, after two millennia, our world still reels with poverty, prejudice, and all manner of social ills.

Perhaps nowhere does Jesus speak as forcefully on human relations as he does in his final sermon recorded in Matthew, the Eschatological (simply means the study of the last things) Discourse. Only this Gospel records the familiar parable of the sheep and the goats. It is worth noting the traits that separate the two groups. The sheep at the Father's right hand will be invited to inherit his kingdom because they fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked and visited the imprisoned.

Conspicuously absent from the list are supposedly religious activities, such as prayer, fasting and pilgrimage. Jesus insists that those five deeds and others like them are religious activities. "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Mt 25:40b). Conversely, the goats on his left hear, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me" (Mt 25:45b). The compelling final line says it all, "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Mt 25:46).

The people of God had been enjoined to treat one another well as far back as the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. One of many such injunctions reads:"You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry" (Ex 22:21-23).  Neighbors included resident aliens. Special consideration was due to widows and orphans who had no recourse in that society. Matthew, writing for a primarily Jewish audience, highlights Jesus' grounding in that long tradition.

The Compassionate Jesus of Luke’s Gospel

Luke records what amounts to an inaugural address opening Jesus' public life. Like presidential speeches in our own time, this one laid out Jesus' priorities—where he could be expected to concentrate his efforts in the days ahead. Reaching back into that honored prophetic tradition of commitment to social justice, Jesus spoke to his hometown neighbors, reading in the Nazareth synagogue from the writings of Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Is 61:1-2).

Jesus' commitment to the disenfranchised was foretold at his birth by the visit of the shepherds. These are not the majestic magi of Matthew's Gospel. Neither are they the well-groomed figures of many Christmas cards. To the contrary, they represented one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder. In making them the first to acknowledge Jesus, Luke is indirectly highlighting those who will benefit most from the coming of God incarnate. There would be others.

Years later, when John the Baptizer sent his disciples to establish Jesus' true identity, Jesus replied, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them"  (Lk 7:22b).

Matthew's Sermon on the Mount becomes the Sermon on the Plain in Luke as Luke would be disinclined to place Jesus above the people. It is the norm in Luke's Gospel for Jesus to be shoulder to shoulder with persons from all walks of life. And while Matthew has Jesus begin his beatitudes by addressing the poor in spirit (Mt 5:3), Luke's Jesus looks directly into the eyes of his humble audience and says to them, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Lk 6:20b). In a culture that often saw poverty and illness as penalties for sin, such a statement would set off reactions ranging from bewilderment to shock. As he so often did, Jesus here turned the long-accepted value system on its head.

Religious leaders often found Jesus' association with those generally mistreated or totally ignored by those of higher social rank galling, "And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them'" (Lk 15:2).

An acerbic response to such self-righteousness is found in the next chapter where Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus—found only in Luke (16:19-31). As the story goes, Lazarus (a fictitious character as opposed to the very real Lazarus Jesus raised to life) lay at the door of an exceedingly rich man's home. The inference is that he was there for some time. He "longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table." Over the course of time, both men died. While Lazarus found himself comforted at last in the company of Abraham, the rich man was consigned to the torments of Hades. There is no suggestion anywhere in the parable that the rich man ever actively abused Lazarus; he simply ignored him, possibly walking over or past him day after day.

We may find a lesson here for our own day. It's undoubtedly safe to say that no one reading this article has ever inflicted physical harm on a member of a disadvantaged group. What Jesus makes abundantly clear is that our sin may lie in blocking them from our consciousness, pretending that they don't exist.

In our defense, we frequently do this because we suffer from an overload of stories on the news, depicting the plight of people the world over, leaving us to wonder what one individual could possibly do to alleviate such pain. Certainly no one can do everything, but Jesus seems to urge us to bear in mind that everyone can do something.

Lepers, tax collectors, Roman soldiers and, strikingly, women all come in for their share of Jesus' attention in Luke's Gospel. These were the groups most likely to be found on the fringes of first-century society. While we still have tax collectors, we're a little short of Roman soldiers and lepers in America today. Who has taken their place on the list of the marginalized? Women remain there although their status in American society has markedly improved. That is not the case, however, in other parts of the world, particularly Third World nations.

Who would Jesus go out of his way to fraternize with today? Would he, too, be in the thick of his modern disciples who try to rectify the wrongs of the 21st century? Reading Luke's Gospel leaves little doubt. The Jesus he portrays even goes to a criminal's shameful death suspended between two convicts. He came into the world surrounded by the lowliest individuals, and he left it the same way.

Our Marching Orders From James’ Letter

The brusque Letter of James could probably be summarized in a single sentence, "Don't just stand there; do something!" For James, all the devout piety in the world isn't worth much if it isn't backed up by action. This short letter, which is usually attributed to the James who was a blood relative of Jesus, has occasionally been misread to suggest that, if we just put our shoulders to the wheel, we can work our way to heaven. Actually, he does not suggest that at all. Let's allow him to speak for himself: "But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves" (Jas 1:22). "What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,' and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (Jas 2:14-17).

All of those priests and bishops, religious sisters and brothers who fell in with Americans from other traditions in those heady post-Vatican II days, marching to attain basic human rights for all, may have heard James' marching orders echoing down the centuries. Would Jesus have joined them? Unquestionably! He figuratively marches with us backing the causes of the early 21st century. Our task is to make sure we do, indeed, have a cause for him to support.

Virginia Smith, co-creator of Scripture from Scratch and a frequent contributor, is the author of God for Grownups and Life Is Changed, Not Ended (Thomas More/Ave Maria Press).

Next: Those Unpredictable Prophets of God (by Virginia Smith)

Living the Scriptures
Prejudice, inequality and discrimination surround us in everyday life. Where do you see instances of injustice in your professional, personal, social or community life? What steps might you take either alone or united with others to alleviate or eliminate those conditions?

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